OCTOBER 6, 2017
ON FEBRUARY 9, 1963, two days before the poet Sylvia Plath killed herself, a radio play about her marriage aired on the BBC. Difficulties of a Bridegroom was written by her husband, Ted Hughes, and was about a man rejecting his bride in favor of his mistress. The play aired twice, in January and February, and was heard by all of literary London — including Plath herself.
When I learned about the play, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it. I thought I knew all the available parts of the Plath/Hughes saga, let alone something so significant. In the BBC documentary Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death, the play was described by poet Daniel Huws as Plath’s “death warrant.” Another friend, Elizabeth Sigmund, said the play must have given Plath “a most horrible shock. I think the play gave a picture of [Hughes] being cruel. Why would he write such a thing?”
I immediately bought something called Difficulties of a Bridegroom by Ted Hughes online. What came, in a cigarette-stinking envelope, was not the play I expected, but a collection of short stories. It turns out that Hughes used the title Difficulties of a Bridegroom for several projects, including the book and the radio play in question.
This confusion over the title may be why Plath scholars have overlooked the play. Most biographies on Plath ignore it or only mention it in passing. The few in-depth descriptions there are vary widely. Is Difficulties a play about a man appeasing his demanding bride? Is it about the subconscious nature of marriage? Was Hughes using occult symbolism to “influence audiences at the unconscious level,” as Diane Middlebrook writes in Her Husband? There’s no clear consensus. The only thing that was consistent was the description of the plot — the protagonist accidentally kills a hare, sells its body, and buys two roses for his lover.
It’s easy to see how this may have upset Plath — and not only because Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill had recently broken up their marriage. Hughes had long compared Plath affectionately to a hare.
“Ted’s belief in shamanism would lead him to think of [Plath] as a being like a hare — magic and mysterious and very powerful,” Sigmund said. “The connection between the shamanic animal being a hare, being Sylvia, and then buying roses with a dead hare and giving them to Assia was the most horrible thing to contemplate.”
When I finally tracked down a transcript of Difficulties from a library in Texas, I understood the confusion. Difficulties is a dense text, full of obtuse language that makes it hard to interpret. Taken in one light, it’s a condemnation of the archetypal ideal bride, who acts as a barrier to a successful relationship — once the metaphorical hare is dead, the man is free to love. But the play also uses language that seems to address Plath directly, both by riffing on her poetry and by touching on their shared life experiences.
The play begins with the protagonist, Sullivan, driving to meet his mistress at night. He’s debating why he’s so obsessed with her — “She’s attractive, but is she outstanding?” he asks himself. “You’re moon-blind.” — when he sees a hare running down the road. He decides to chase it with his car. “A little experiment,” he says, laughing. Then, calling himself cruel, he relents and lets the hare off the road. “You’ll give it hysteric — hares are highly strung animals.”
But the hare is more than an animal. Throughout the play, it’s compared to a human. Sullivan remarks that when a hare is shot, it screams “like a girl.” When the hare hears church bells in the distance, it stands up “on its hind legs like a man to listen.” Later, after the hare is killed, the mistress says it’s as huge as a person, with “big inspired-looking golden eyes, even when it was dead.”
This human-like hare is superceded by the appearance of four women, who, like a Greek chorus, usher in Sullivan’s bride by chanting: “O beautiful maiden.” But their call is mocking. The chorus describes a distorted version of the “irresistible” bride, with hairy palms, tonsils in her eyes, “a fox in her face, a bat in her hair, and a polecat in her navel.” Her smile is “the moon rising from the drowned, white as a hairless bladder dog.” She is tedious: “Her words are a track of ants lifelong.”
This is Sullivan’s bride, a Lilith-like character with shades of a harpy or a succubus. She enters, having “smelled the soul” in Sullivan’s body, and asks if he recognizes her. He does not. “You should know me, Sullivan,” she said and demands he compliment her body — her hand, her shoulders, her throat. He complies, struggling to compose the appropriate words. “You’re putting things in my mind,” he says.
When the bride is satisfied with the flattery, she announces, “Now you can have me. What will you give for me?” She requires he give her an unlimited allowance, a red convertible, a house, furniture “to my taste,” parties, and a wardrobe. “You’ll have to get a job, of course.”
Then the bride turns on Sullivan, asking, “Why do you go about in such rags?” Plath, it should be noted, frequently complained about Hughes’s poor grooming. In 1957, she wrote in her journal, “Ted looked slovenly: his suit jacket wrinkled as if being pulled from behind, his pants hanging, unbelted, in great folds, his hair black & greasy. […] He was ashamed of something.” Now the bride complains in a similar fashion, telling Sullivan to dress better and shave more frequently. She proceeds to dress him in the skins of animals associated with sexual or masculine imagery — “a black goat killed in rut,” snakes, mink, barracuda, and a panther “for leaping to heights,” among others.
Throughout the play, the bride controls Sullivan. Whenever she orders him to speak, give her things, or contort his body, he complies. In this way, he grows increasingly trapped. By the time Difficulties aired on the BBC, Hughes had come to regard his marriage to Plath as a dangerous snare. Jonathan Bate, in his biography Ted Hughes: An Unauthorised Life, describes him debating whether or not to go back to Plath. He wrote in a journal that while he wanted to go back, he didn’t know “how to stay out of the old trap,” and told Plath that if he did, he “couldn’t be a prisoner” again.
In Difficulties, there’s a turning point where Sullivan, like Hughes, rebels from the bride’s control. It comes after she says:
Meanwhile you’ll have to describe to me, to the whisper, every least girl you’ve ever so much as kissed. […] If I’m to own you I own you all — Inside the head as outside. I want your memories out on a plate. I lap them up.
This, it seems, is the last straw. Sullivan can suddenly see the bride as she is. He recoils from her, calling her a metaphor and a simulacrum. “I’m betrothed to the thing itself, bride of brides.”
She responds by threatening her own life.
She: Shall I tell you what you’re in for? You’re killing me, that’s what you’re in for. […] Haven’t you any heart?
Sullivan: You don’t impress me. I’ve heard all about the suffering of love till my ears ache.
On one level, Sullivan is rejecting the bride archetype by seeing her for what she really is. According to Middlebrook, “The ‘bridegroom’ in Hughes’s plot was seeking alchemical transformation, and the ‘bride’ was an idea about a so-called female principle, both being wholly allegorical abstractions.”
Hughes described it more clearly in a letter to his sister, saying that Sullivan has to “kill [the bride], master it, or at least meet it & recognise it, before he can get on with real outside life with a real woman.”
That may be, but it’s hard not to think of Plath here, who famously attempted suicide when she was in college, leading to electroshock therapy in a mental hospital, experiences she fictionalized in her novel The Bell Jar. Hughes was well aware of his wife’s delicate mental state when he wrote about a man turning a deaf ear to threats of self-harm. Immediately after, Sullivan recalls their seven years of marriage, saying, “Up and down with your seven faces!” He says he’ll recognize his real bride when he sees her.
Of course, during this time Plath was also writing about their marriage. Many of her last poems address Hughes’s betrayal with furious bile. She read some of these poems on the BBC in December, a month before Difficulties aired. One of them was “Lady Lazarus,” a poem about death and rebirth. It ends, “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”
Hughes and Plath had a long history of intertextual play between their poems, often using and changing each other’s imagery. Hughes carries on this tradition here within the play. As Sullivan turns an unfeeling ear to the bride, she becomes an impotent version of Plath’s Lady Lazarus. Calling herself “Lady of the Literal,” she threatens to castrate him: “I shall start at your feet and cut upwards.”
She: I shall be a maneater and the blood on your head.
Sullivan: In a manner of speaking.
She: I shall come after you, how can you leave me? Things aren’t arranged that way, I shall come after you, eyeteeth exposed, hunger to the fore, eyes like burning people, a rumbling tunnel.
Sullivan: Use your handkerchief, I can’t bear tears.
The bride is, in the end, powerless over Sullivan, who sends her away, and the chorus returns with their mocking refrain of “o beautiful maiden.” But the play is far from over.
In the spring of 1962, both Hughes and Plath were writing about rabbits. Hughes was writing Difficulties, which he told his friend was a “morality play” where the moral is “What you are afraid of overtakes you.” Plath was writing the poem “The Rabbit Catcher,” which ends:
And we, too, had a relationship —
Tight wires between us,
Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring
Sliding shut on some quick thing,
The constriction killing me also.
Plath wrote “The Rabbit Catcher” — as well as the poem “Event” — the day after she caught Assia and Hughes kissing in her kitchen. Assia and her husband David had come down that weekend to visit their home, Court Green. From that kiss, they started an affair that led to Plath and Hughes separating in September. Hughes went to London while Plath stayed behind with their two children. He continued seeing Assia throughout the fall and winter as they waffled about leaving their spouses. He also saw other women during that time.
In his 1998 collection Birthday Letters, Hughes also published a poem titled “The Rabbit Catcher.” Both his and Plath’s poems describe coming upon rabbit snares along a windy trail. In Plath’s poem, the end of a sexual relationship is compared to the death of a rabbit — images Hughes also put in Difficulties. Plath included “The Rabbit Catcher” in her final poetry collection, Ariel, and considered it for the title for the book. When Hughes published the collection, he omitted the poem, along with 11 others, which he described as “personally aggressive.”
Hughes’s “The Rabbit Catcher” starts with descriptions of a wife’s fury as she drives the speaker and their two children to the seashore. The man is confused, feeling shut out from her rage.
Your Germanic scowl, edged like a helmet,
Would not translate itself. I sat baffled.
I was a fly outside on the window-pane
Of my own domestic drama.
When she pulls the rabbit snares out of the ground and throws them into the trees, he’s “aghast.” He sees the snares as:
Country poverty raising a penny,
Filling a Sunday stewpot. You saw baby-eyed
Strangled innocents, I saw sacred
Throughout the poem, the speaker is mystified by the woman’s emotions. The rift between them is a mystery he can’t solve. “I could not find you, or really hear you, / Let alone understand you.”
It would be a mistake to assume that Difficulties of a Bridegroom is completely autobiographical. Hughes and Plath used their lives as material for their work, but they weren’t memoirists. Plath’s poem “Daddy,” for example, describes a husband as a “vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know.” While this is a reference to her seven-year marriage to Hughes, the husband and the Daddy figure are intertwined with each other, and with the concept of God. There are also mythical and psychological aspects to the poem — according to Plath, the speaker has an Electra complex. To focus on only the personal aspects of “Daddy” is to do the poem a disservice.
Similarly, Difficulties isn’t meant to be a literal take on Hughes’s marriage. Sullivan doesn’t simply denounce the bride as a metaphor and then return to his mistress. Once he rejects the bride, another one comes in her place, and this one is even more controlling and harmful. She orders him to contort his body into different numbers while (oddly) a tiger roars in the background. He obeys, despite screaming and gasping “as if scalded.”
In the end, Sullivan’s “mutilated soul,” as Hughes called it in a letter, is returned to the world while the chorus chants, “Bring his body.” At this point, poachers enter the play and shoot the hare. Suddenly, Sullivan is in reality again.
It’s a strange choice to have the poachers kill the hare, especially since Sullivan doesn’t seem to understand what happened. He seems to believe he’s the one who killed the hare, telling his mistress, “I slowed up to let it get off the road and it doubled straight back under the wheels. [The hare] looked to be acting under orders.” He takes responsibility for its death, even as he believes the hare ushered in its own self-destruction, even as the audience knows the poachers shot it.
When Sullivan sells the hare’s body for five shillings, the mistress is horrified.
“How could you sell it?” she wonders. “How could you pick it off the road? Throw it away.” Then she repeats, “It’s blood money. Throw it in the road where you got it.”
Instead he spends the money on two roses. “That’s the five bob converted in heaven, if you like. One rose for you and — another for you.”
The other rose, however, isn’t for the mistress at all. It’s for the bride, who, it’s suggested, had been sacrificed to free Sullivan up for his mistress.
On February 10, 1963, the day before Plath died, Hughes sent the script of Difficulties to his sister, along with a letter describing the play. He talks about the production of the play, which was “not so good, I thought, but it’s effect was infinitely superior to [his first radio play] The Wound.” He then writes:
The day after I posted it, I drove up to London, ran over a hare (by pure chance—it’s impossible to do it deliberately) sold it to a butcher’s in Holborn & he gave me 5 bob. I spent it on roses—4 I got for 5/-, smashed two, & gave 2 to Assia.
From this, it seems that Hughes accidentally hit a hare the day after he sent Difficulties to the BBC. He then acted out Sullivan’s role, selling the hare’s body, but buying four roses instead of two. Two of these he “smashed,” the other two he gave to Assia.
Difficulties of a Bridegroom aired during one of the coldest winters in England’s history. By then, Plath had left Court Green and moved to an apartment in London, where Yeats had once lived. The pipes had burst and she had no working telephone. She was alone with two small children and she couldn’t muster the energy to hire a babysitter, let alone go out in the snow to buy diapers.
She was also writing her last poems, works that she knew were the best of her life.
We don’t know how Plath felt about Difficulties because Hughes destroyed the journals she kept the last months of her life. As far as I know, her only response to the play is one of her last poems, “Kindness.”
Plath wrote “Kindness” on February 1, 1963, on the back of an advertisement she’d copied out for Mother’s Helpers. In it, “Dame Kindness” comes to her house, smiling and offering her sugar, which she says can “cure anything.”
“What is so real as the cry of a child?” the speaker asks. “A rabbit’s cry may be wilder / But it has no soul.”
In the last line, Plath plucks Hughes’s two red roses from his play and puts them in her poem. It’s an ambiguous image, and her final word on the subject:
And here you come, with a cup of tea
Wreathed in steam.
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
You hand me two children, two roses.